By Maggie Fremont
February 14, 2021 at 10:00 PM EST
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American Idol is back in business, baby. After a hybrid virtual season that saw passionate, big-voiced Just Sam crowned the season 18 winner with, sadly, little fanfare, your favorite reality TV singing competition has returned looking like its old self — well, mostly. There are some COVID-related changes put in place to keep everyone a little safer: The judges are sitting further away from each other. Instead of handing out golden tickets to those contestants moving on to Hollywood Week, there's a rack with tickets for people to take on their way out. Rather than letting everyone's entire family on the premises, there's floor to ceiling screens where contestants can chat with family members and break down into tears. Ryan Seacrest has a quar-beard. You know, the changes you'd expect at this point. 

Mostly though, season 19 starts off feeling like the American Idol you know and love, including auditions that really run the gamut as far as... quality. This is not to say that I didn't thoroughly enjoy watching Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan engage in a Zoolander-style runway walk off with a model in a speedo, but for recap purposes, we'll be highlighting the contestants we'll be meeting again in Hollywood. So who got to pluck a golden ticket off the Hollywood ticket rack? Let's meet the first group of American Idol season 19 contestants.

Benson Boone / 18 / Monroe, Wash. "Punchline" by Aidan Martin
Is it the ghost of season 18's Louis Knight? No, it's Benson Boone! Like Louis, Benson has teen heartthrob written all over him as he heads to the piano to show the judges what he's got after just one year of singing. His voice is highly stylized, so it's a personal preference if you're into it, but Benson's got real emotion to back up his pipes. He's very believable! Lionel calls him a "natural talent" and Luke is excited to see what happens once Benson really starts playing around with his voice and realizes what he can do. "They're gonna swoon over Benson Boone," Katy exclaims. She isn't wrong. 

Alex Miller / 17 / Lancaster, Ky. "I'm Over You, So Get Over Me" by Alex Miller
Country has entered the building, people. Alex's family owns a cattle farm, he's dressed like he's headed to the honky-tonk, and his entire voice is just twang for days. The judges have their fingers crossed that Alex sings like he talks — their wishes are granted. Alex is 100 percent old school country, so it'll be interesting to see how he fares during Hollywood week when pushed to stretch himself. For now, the judges are thrilled to find him: In fact, Luke Bryan is so excited, he can't help but get up and duet. 

Jason Warrior / 25 / Chicago, Ill. "What's Going On" by Marvin Gaye
Jason here might look a little familiar to you: Jason made it to the Live Playoffs during season 11 of The Voice, and he ruffled a lot of feathers as a contestant on The Four when he called out Meghan Trainor after she voted to send him home. He's had a lot of opportunities taken away since that incident and he's hoping that American Idol can be a redemption of sorts. Lionel tells him to shake it off: "If you try to go back and scream at the past, you'll trip over the future," he says to an emotional Jason. I missed Lionel's words of wisdom! Obviously, since Jason has made it on to so many singing competitions, you know he's got the talent and he really goes for it with this Marvin Gaye song. Jason navigates the technically challenging arrangement well. Lionel tells him it "was one of the strongest vocals on this show." They welcome him onto Idol with open arms.

Anilee List / 20 / Los Angeles, Calif. "Blue" by Aaron Taylor
Anilee's runs, everybody. Runs for days! Anilee shows up to the auditions with some ties to Idol already: She has Tourette syndrome and was moved and inspired by seeing season 10's James Durbin, who also has Tourette's, earn fourth place in the competition. She ended up forming a friendship with James — he even pops up on the video screens to congratulate her on making it through to Hollywood. It's all so nice! Even nicer, she has an excellent audition. Her voice is soulful and full of emotion and um, did I mention the runs? By the end of it, Katy Perry calls it "one of the most technically perfect auditions" she's seen... ever. That's a good critique, right there.

DJ Johnson / 18 / Longview, Tex. "Scars" by DJ Johnson
This is an intense one. DJ is one of 10 kids and she tells the judges that her mother left them about a year ago. Her song is an original, written about her mother, and partway through it, she breaks down into tears. The judges have DJ's father come in for support. Luke suggests trying a different song, but Katy thinks DJ needs to finish this one. DJ sounds even better the second time around. They love how honest and authentic DJ is while performing and everyone is bawling by the time she, her dad, and her golden ticket leave the room. 

Nia Renée / 17 / Little Rock, Ark. "Chain of Fools" by Aretha Franklin
Nia is the ray of sunshine we needed in this episode! The poor thing walks in as Katy Perry is pretending to be a cow — she's in a "Cruella de Vil is into bovines and going to church" type of getup — and Luke Bryan is pretending to go cow tipping, but pays it little mind before launching into one of the best auditions of the episode. She makes the Aretha classic her own and shows off both her power and control. Luke says she was clearly "born to do [this]" and remarks that Nia Renée "may be [the show's] best soul singer ever." So, yeah, they like her.

Claudia Conway / 16 / Alpine, N.J. "Love on the Brain" by Rihanna / "When We Were Young" by Adele
Yes, in case you missed the non-stop ABC promos, Claudia Conway, daughter of George and Kellyanne Conway, is on American Idol this season. As soon as Katy Perry realizes who she is she asks, "Are you okay?" "Yes and no," the teen responds. The auditions took place back in November 2020, just for some context. As far as the audition goes, Claudia starts off with a Rihanna ballad, but Katy stops her part-way through: The judges can tell the song got away from her. They want her to try something else and to add some artistry to the performance. The Adele song goes much better. Katy thinks Claudia needs to get rid of "the noise in [her] life" and just sing, she votes "yes" to Hollywood. Luke thinks Claudia is "limited by [her] range" and isn't quite ready, so he's a no. Lionel is "impressed" by her second song and wants to give her a shot. Claudia's headed to Hollywood Week.

Grace Kinstler / 20 / Chicago, Ill. "Midnight Train to Georgia" by Gladys Knight / "Natural Woman" by Carole King
Idol saved the best audition for last. Grace explains that her biggest supporter was always her dad. He died suddenly not too long ago, otherwise, he'd be the one here with her, cheering her on. Then she opens up her mouth and a powerful, soulful voice comes out. The judges, however, want to hear Grace do a song she can make her own. "Natural Woman" is an interesting choice for this endeavor since it's been made famous by both Carole King and Aretha Franklin, but Grace is up for the challenge. She has power and range and control and it brings Luke Bryan to tears. He tells her that his emotion isn't stemming from a sad story, it's purely because of her voice: it's "the first time in four years that just someone singing made me cry." Katy loved it, too: "I think my milk came in," she says. So, there's that. Anyway, they compare Grace's audition to Kelly Clarkson's and Jennifer Hudson's auditions and there's no question — we'll be seeing Grace Kinstler in Hollywood.

And that's night one of American Idol season 19. Who was your favorite audition? Who are you already looking forward to see take on the hellscape that is Hollywood Week? 

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